The airport-style check-in entrance to KidZania at The Dubai Mall doesn’t prepare us for the inside experience, despite the fact that we’re informed of our impending journey to a new and distant land. ‘KidZania is a unique city – and when you visit a new place, you usually have to fly there,’ explains the man at the desk, as he straps electronic watch-like devices on all our arms. Next thing, our kids are handed mini cheques for 50 KidZos (the KidZania currency), presented with their boarding passes, and off we go.
KidZania is like the set from The Truman Show – only in miniature. The concept is that kids learn through role play – and by playing at being adults in an environment that has shrunk down to their size, they’ll have a firmer grasp on the world around them. A mini bank allows them to cash their cheque – and it’s up to them to manage their finances. Whether they choose to fritter it away by getting their nails done, or if they decide to earn more hard cash and put it into their own KidZania bank account, they’re on their own.
For those with a strict work ethic but no clear ambition, there’s even the Job Centre. Here, kids can look for available positions, apply for them and learn to write up their CVs in the process.
Our first stop is a well-known fast food joint and, as it’s a Thursday, we allow it as a treat. But we’re amazed as the lady at the desk promptly dresses our little Jack in a cap and apron and guides him through the open kitchen. He toasts his sesame bun, squirts on the ketchup, sneaks an extra slice of cheese onto his burger and fills his own cup with apple juice. Then, once he’s packed his own meal, he gets to demolish it. Not a profession we’d necessarily advocate, but, hey, flipping burgers has helped many a genius work their way through university.
After that, it’s on to the serious career options. Like most children, Jack and his friend Rose make a beeline for the aeroplane. Once inside, they’re able to choose their occupation, from pilot, to purser to cabin crew. So while Jack to gets to grips with the flight simulator and tries not to crash into the Gulf, Rose gets busy with the safety demonstration and serving the ‘chicken or beef’. Twenty minutes later, it’s all change and time to try out another occupation. Rose decides to go shopping at Waitrose, while Jack joins the fire brigade. This activity begins with a 10-minute lecture on fire safety in the upstairs room of the fire station with seven other young ‘firemen’. On cue, the alarm sounds and the team is mobilised to extinguish a fire at the nearby Flamingo Hotel. Like the real thing, they slide down a yellow slide into the changing rooms, don their costumes and take up positions in the fire truck. The Flamingo Hotel, we’re reliably informed, goes up in flames every 30 minutes so the fire brigade of the moment can do their honourable duty. At the same time, ‘officers’ from the KZPD (KidZania Police Department) are dispatched to help control gathering crowds. An ambulance is then sent to the scene and a volunteer patient is loaded aboard. Then, to top the whole thing off, a reporter arrives – dispatched by KidZania’s daily rag, to get the exclusive story.
We wait for Jack back at the fire station. By the time he returns, he’s absolutely full of it – and when he gets paid, it’s the icing on the cake. ‘I got paid! Look! I got paid for being a fireman!’ In fact, he’s so enthusiastic that he runs into the street waving his cash above his head and telling anyone who’ll listen. Rose is unimpressed by her friend’s heroics and declares that she’s ‘off to the salon’ to get her hair done.
This adventure is for ladies only (there’s a barber shop for the boys) and they can either do the pampering – or be pampered. Those prepared to roll up their sleeves will earn money for their efforts, while sitting in the chair and getting your hair tousled, your make-up artfully applied or your nails painted, sets you back six KidZos. Rose opts for the pampering. All that shopping was really hard work.
Meanwhile, Jack zips off to spend his newly earned wages at the Emirates Driving School, complete with baby traffic lights, pedestrian crossings and an ENOC service station. For 20 KidZos, he hires a white convertible and spends the next 10 minutes terrorising other kids with his enthusiastic handbrake turns. Afterwards, feeling peckish, he snaffles a slice of Rose’s pizza, which she concocted herself after enrolling in the Pizza Express culinary school (for Dhs15 of ‘adult’ cash).
But there’s still so much to do. There’s the theatre with its talent show, play and street parade, the dentist and the hospital and the art school to visit. We haven’t got round to trying the television studio, nor did we visit the radio station, the newspaper or the F1 track. We’ve only really scratched the surface of KidZania’s treats.
While we’re deciding what else to try, the decision is made for us. Rose spots a clown (she can’t stand them) and promptly bursts into tears. It’s time to go home. But we all agree this is a place we’ll return to and where our families could happily spend an entire day. One thing’s for sure, when the mercury rises in Dubai’s summer months, the Republic of KidZania is going to see a whole lot of little tourists.
Security: No adult is allowed into KidZania without a child. Parents and kids have coordinating electronic wrist bands, which means an adult may leave KidZania without their child (as long as their offspring are over 120cms tall), but only the adult who has dropped them off, can collect them again. The wristbands help parents locate their little monsters within the city itself, as kids have to register electronically for each activity they choose to do.
Zoopervisors: Specially trained (and super-patient) staff guide kids through the range of role plays available.
Little ones: Too young to take part in the action? Check out Urbano’s Residence – a supervised five-room play centre with plenty of toys for infants, a puppet show and storytelling sessions.
Entry: Entry for kids aged four to 15 Dhs125, tots aged two to three Dhs95 and under twos go free. Accompanying adults pay Dhs90. KidZania is at The Dubai Mall. Open Sun-Wed 9am-10pm, Thu 9am-midnight, Fri-Sat and public holidays 10am-midnight. Call 04 448 5222.
Our verdict: Absolutely brilliant! Entrance initially seems expensive, but you can stay inside KidZania for a whole day and there’s more than enough to keep them busy.